BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romanian election officials declared late Sunday that a referendum to impeach the nation's president on grounds that he overstepped his authority had failed because of low voter turnout.
The Central Election Bureau put the voter turnout in Sunday's referendum on President Traian Basescu at 45.92 percent, with a 3 percent margin of error. By law, such referendums are invalid if less than half the electorate cast ballots. The bureau did not immediately give the outcome of the vote, but two exit polls showed more than 80 percent favored impeaching Basescu.
"Romanians have invalidated the referendum by not voting," Basescu said on national TV as he announced he had survived the vote.
However, he acknowledged he had lost popular support, and pledged to work toward reconciliation in the nation of 19 million which threw off communism in 1989.
"I assure Romanians that once I return ... I will try and generate a sentiment of reconciliation in society," he said. "It's clear that Romanians are unhappy about what has happened in recent years. Divisions in society must be stopped, they must be annihilated, because Romania needs all its energy to ... integrate into the civilized world."
The political turmoil has dented Romania's credibility, with the U.S. and European Union expressing doubts about the left-leaning government 's respect for the independence of the judiciary. Critics accuse the government leader, Prime Minister Victor Ponta, of orchestrating the effort to oust Basescu. Ponta claimed the president was behind an effort to make public a scandal involving allegations that Ponta had plagiarized his 2004 doctoral thesis.
Basescu was accused by his rivals in the government of violating the constitution by overstepping his authority to interfere in the daily running of the country, appointing loyalists to key positions in the justice system and using the secret services against his political rivals. Basescu claimed his rivals were planning to seize control of the judicial system and European Union funds. Romania joined the EU in 2007.
Basescu, a former ship captain, called the impeachment process a political vendetta carried out by his opponents and urged supporters to boycott the vote — a tactic that apparently helped him survive.
Basescu, who has been president since 2004, saw his approval numbers drop after the government introduced austerity measures in 2010 to meet demands by the International Monetary Fund in exchange for a multibillion euro (dollar) loan. The government cut public wages by one-fourth and raised the sales tax to 24 percent, one of the highest in the EU.